Officials: Loss of Wilson’s to change the face of downtown Greenfield

  • The front windows of Wilson’s Department Store announce its closing sale. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 12/1/2019 9:40:16 PM

GREENFIELD — The closing of Wilson’s Department Store will change the face of downtown Greenfield, says Director of Planning and Development Eric Twarog.

“Wilson’s was the last privately owned department store in New England,” he said. “They were an icon of many years.”

As the 137-year-old business announced its closure Monday, local social and civic leaders commented on the longevity of the department store, its effects on the city and the future of Main Street.

Executive Director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce Diana Szynal said Wilson’s was one of five local businesses that have been members of the chamber since it was founded 100 years ago — the other four are WHAI, Berkshire Gas, Eversource and the Greenfield Recorder.

“Their history is our history,” Szynal said. “We at the chamber want to recognize them for their contribution to Greenfield and Franklin County. Wilson’s was a staple and a landmark. It’s really sad to see them go. We thank them for all they’ve done and meant for Greenfield. It’s going to be strange moving forward without them.”

Similarly, Downtown Greenfield Neighborhood Association founder Otis Wheeler said the closure of Wilson’s marks “the end of an era.”

“Wilson’s contributed to the history of retail in Greenfield, and I speak for the group when I say it’s sad to see them go,” Wheeler said. “These are changing tides in the retail landscape that have to be navigated by business owners in the 21st century. We feel confident that the building will return to a productive use in the future and continue to be a hub in some way or another. The Downtown Greenfield Neighborhood Association would love to do its part to promote new use of the building.”

Mayor William Martin said that while change is inevitable, the loss of Wilson’s will be “quite a change for the city.”

“They were a major anchor for decades,” Martin said. “It’s sad. They did a great job with that business in that space. It was certainly the longest big box store on Main Street and the county.”

Mayor-elect Roxann Wedegartner said she’s sorry to see what she considers to be a national icon going out of business.

“Eventually all good things come to an end. I’m sure there are many things that were taken into consideration when making the decision,” Wedegartner said. “This leaves a large empty space. If the owner is going to retain ownership or not, I plan on working with them to come up with the best plan for reuse.”

Wedegartner said she’d like to see mixed-use for the building to “best utilize it as an anchor in downtown.”

“I wouldn’t want to lose as a part of the vision of downtown Greenfield,” Wedegartner said.

Greenfield resident and “sprawlbuster” Al Norman said, “Everyone in Greenfield owes Wilson’s a debt for bringing in products and jobs for 137 years. They managed to keep the company open for so long, it’s a tribute to their doggedness. Wilson’s not only occupied the largest retailer in Greenfield but a lot of others. ... They’ve been a downtown anchor.”

Norman theorized two reasons for the store’s closure: the effects of the “retail apocalypse” — which is “monopoly control of retail by a few wealthy families” — and the lack of local shoppers.

“All across Main Street America there is a consolidation. There are fewer and fewer hands, and Walmart and Amazon dominate the market,” Norman said. “I think it’s a little miracle that Wilson’s hung on as long as it did. It’s a testament to their determination. I’m sorry to see them going dark and it’s going to be difficult to come up with a reasonable recovery plan.

“We’re responsible for the hollowing out of downtown, myself included,” Norman continued. “There are a lot of other local merchants in the same camp. It’s affected book stores, hardware stores — it’s a chain reaction. It’s typical to what I’ve been writing about for 25 years. It’s painful to see Wilson’s shutting down after over a century of being here. To me, it’s losing family.”

Norman said he doesn’t believe a national retailer going into the space is a good idea.

“We have to try to have a retail sector that will be able to survive on the disposable income we have here,” Norman said. “People don’t have a lot more to spend other than paying bills and buying groceries.”

Local officials said there is a unique opportunity with a location like Wilson’s.

“The space is valuable and I believe there are several options for the future,” Martin said. “There will always be opportunities and changes. I hope to see the entrepreneurial spirit help create innovations and move the city forward. I believe that will happen.”

Szynal added the chamber is ready to help with whatever opportunities come forward with the space. Twarog said he sees opportunities such as another retailer, or potentially a hotel or motel could be another use for the property.

“The building is in an opportunity zone as well,” Twarog said. “It’s sad to see it go. We will have to wait to see what happens next.”


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